By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Everything right now with this album is basically a hell of a compromise," says the Pharcyde's Romye, who also goes by the name Booty Brown.
Imani, the group's other half, echoes the sentiment: "I'm not mad at it, but"--he pauses to hit a blunt--"yeah, it's a compromise."
How's that for a glowing endorsement of the Pharcyde's new album, Plain Rap, which hit retail shelves a couple of weeks ago?
It might seem odd for the group--any group--to act so lackadaisical toward its first album in five years. Even the punny title is understated--an anomaly in a genre known more for hyperbole and "I'm the super shit" braggadocio than for humility. Then again, the Pharcyde has always been a little left--no, a lot left--of hip-hop's center.
We're up in the Pharcyde's office/production studio, a cluttered two-room affair on the 12th floor of a semi-dilapidated Hollywood Boulevard building, overlooking the palms and traffic and haze. The place clearly gets a lot of use, as illustrated by the package of Philly blunts next to a pile of stems on a desk, crates overflowing with vinyl, empty juice bottles lining shelves, and the pervasive odor of incense. Our bohemian-looking hosts are relaxed, unaffected, and gracious: Romye, in short tousled dreads, roams casually about the debris and offers us a Snapple (accepted); Imani, in long pulled-back dreads, lounges at a production console and offers us a pull of smoke (declined). A gold plaque for their first album, 1992's Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, is one of the few things hanging on the scuffed white walls.
The plaque testifies to the creative synergy of Tre "Slim Kid" Hardson, Imani "Darky Boy" Wilcox, Romye "Booty Brown" Robinson, and Derrick "Fat Lip" Stewart--four very off-the-wall 19- and 20-year-old break-dancers turned MCs who lived, partied, and made rap history together in an infamous hip-hop "flop" house called the Pharcyde Manor.
The then-unknown foursome debuted on the Brand New Heavies' Heavy Rhyme Experience. Amid the top-tier rappers busting over BNH's live jazz-hop, the Pharcyde's contribution, "Soul Flower," was the highlight. Next, the phar-out quartet hit the studio with loopy, experimental producer J-Swift and--fueled by sack after sack of weed--emerged with a hip-hop classic. Bizarre Ride offered an alternative to L.A.'s burgeoning gangsta rap movement: jokes about ya mama, tales of unrequited love, mad freestyle energy, cartoonish voices, and an overall Fat-Albert-on-acid approach to a genre that had started to take itself all too seriously. Add to that a hyperkinetic stage show that dispensed with hard-shelled crotch-grabbing and posturing in favor of fluid shaking and shimmying, and you had a group that was equally at home playing black colleges, underground hip-hop clubs, X Games events, or raves.
Eight years later, Pharcyde Manor is a distant memory. Imani, 29, now lives in West Covina. Romye, 30, shacks up in Pasadena. Both have kids. Like a rose blossoming in a scrap heap, the framed, half-a-million-units-sold certification on the tattered studio wall looks distinctly out of place and begs some pretty serious questions: Where are Tre and Fat Lip, how did four become two, and why the long hiatus?
Undaunted by the rumors--that Fat Lip was on crack, that there was major drama between the group and their label, Delicious Vinyl--the two remaining members break things down with candor.
Trouble started brewing during the recording of 1995's Labcabincalifornia, the group's more polished and sober sophomore effort. Creative differences led to near fistfights, mostly between Fat Lip and Tre, ironically.
"Everybody was learning a lot, and if you're learning, you want to apply what you learned. Sometimes there's clashes," Imani says matter-of-factly, his mirrored shades hiding his no-doubt very dilated pupils. "[Plus] Fat Lip was going through a lot of things: girls, going from nobody knowing you to everybody. Some people take it in stride, some people really let it affect them."
Labcabincalifornia wasn't a flop, but it didn't make the profound mark of its predecessor. Maybe it was the lack of zaniness; maybe it was the decision to relieve J-Swift from his duties and tackle a lot of the production themselves (apparently, J and Fat Lip didn't get along well either). In any event, the album's underwhelming performance led to internal tension, which was only heightened by Fat Lip's reluctance to go on the road.
When Labcabin flatlined, Fat Lip wanted to focus on making new music, blowing off tours to tinker in the studio. At the same time, he was expecting his first kid and was experimenting with ecstasy and blow--distractions that didn't enhance his productivity. "We came to an agreement: We go out on the road, you do music, so that when we come back, we can just step into the studio," Romye explains. "But we'd come back, and nothing was really going on. He was fucking around with the drugs. That was kind of a turn-off. It was just like, 'Yo, you should get it together; it would be better if you did your own thing solo.'"
In a separate conversation, Fat Lip, who's finishing up a solo project, offers his take: "Our drugs had always been limited to marijuana and mushrooms, so their perception of cocaine was, 'That's the devil.' That was the last straw for them." For the record, he staunchly denies ever messing with crack.